The problem with free-roaming probes is detecting when one has successfully bound to its target. Bamdad solved that problem by attaching the probes to extremely tiny spheres of pure gold called gold nanoparticles, a feat that required her to also solve some tricky surface-chemistry problems. When the probes bind to their targets, the gold particles clump more closely together, causing the color of the solution to shift visibly from pink to blue. And by enabling the probes to interact with potential targets in three dimensions, Minerva lopped several zeroes off typical testing times.
Testing times matter greatly to pharmaceutical companies who seek to automate the screening of potential new drugs. But even more valuable to these companies is Minerva’s ability to attach several different probes to each nanoparticle-enabling the detection of pairs of molecules joined together. This ability is critical in drug development, where a key factor is identifying whether or not a candidate drug hits its desired target. Bamdad has also used her nanoparticle techniques in attempting to understand certain disease mechanisms, and she believes that she has developed a unique method of early detection for many types of common cancers, including breast cancer.
In addition to applications in drug screening and disease diagnosis, Minerva is going after the hot field of proteomics-the effort to study all 500,000 or so proteins encoded in the human genome. Identifying these proteins and understanding which bind to which should bring tremendous new power to the field of life sciences. Bamdad thinks her nanoparticle probes are ideally positioned to solve gigantic chunks of the problem because of their ability to yield information about how proteins bind together.